Stephen Courtright (l.) and Lon Garrison answer questions from the Sitka Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday (9-11-13). (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Stephen Courtright (l.) and Lon Garrison answer questions from the Sitka Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday (9-11-13). (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The two candidates for Sitka’s school board this year agree on much, but also have one key difference: How they view the role of the superintendent.

Incumbent Lon Garrison and challenger Stephen Courtright answered questions for about an hour at the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (9-11-13), in the first candidate forum of the municipal election season.
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Courtright, a music teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe, said the district superintendent should leave education to the educators.

“The superintendent is not the person who should be the educational leader, should not be the disciplinary leader, should not be the one doing the nitty-gritty of human resources issues — there are people whose job it is to do all of those things. But the superintendent is the one who sets the tone from the top down, is the face of the entire district, and needs to be absolutely unimpeachable as such.”

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Courtright stressed that this was not a personal reflection on current superintendent Steve Bradshaw, who is still dealing with the repercussions of last year’s crisis, when his middle school principal was indicted for sexual assault.

Bradshaw has submitted his resignation effective June 30, 2014. The board will begin a hiring process to replace him, following the municipal election.

The two candidates did not dispute each other much during the chamber forum, but incumbent school board president Lon Garrison disagreed on this point: does the superintendent lead on education, or leave that responsibility to the principals?

“I think they are going to be the educational leader. They are going to be the one setting the tone. There’s no doubt about it. There are going to be others that are going to working for them to help implement that leadership, but it is the superintendent who takes on that responsibility of conveying to the rest of the district what the school board has come up with in policy and in vision, and making sure it’s implemented.”

In most other respects, challenger and incumbent were fairly well-aligned: the importance of early childhood education, closing the achievement gap for low-income students, and the need to educate the whole child through extra-curricular programs beyond the three R’s.

Once in a while, the candidates would reveal a subtle difference in perspective. An audience member asked if the Sitka School District adequately prepared students to enter the workforce.

Lon Garrison:

“I would say for most students, Yes, we are effective in educating our students to enter the workforce, to go to college, or to continue with additional career technical education. But I would say there’s still a considerable percentage of students that don’t get there.”

Stephen Courtright:

“My big takeaway from this question is that preparing workers is not the point of schools. The point of schools is to prepare citizens and to prepare thinkers. If we teach them to think, and to be able to ask the right questions, anybody can teach them how to do a job.”

This type of educator’s perspective is what Courtright said Sitka’s current board lacks. He said he felt that this race was not about removing anyone from the board, but about adding something that’s missing.

“It looks different when you’re there every day. The students do things differently, the teachers do things differently. I truly believe that’s a perspective that cannot be gotten by just walking through every now and again.”

Courtright has been a teacher for nine years; Garrison has been on the Sitka School Board for six of those years. He now runs the hatchery program at the Sitka Sound Science Center.

Garrison stressed his history as an advocate for education at the state and federal levels.

“I’ve developed a passion for public education and being a good school board member, and have spent the time and effort it takes to continually improve — and I continue to do that. To bring new ideas to the table and to champion Sitka’s values to both the outside and others outside our state and community.”

Garrison and Courtright are running for one seat on Sitka’s five-member school board. It is a three-year term. The municipal election is Tuesday, October 1.

KCAW News will have detailed profiles of all the municipal candidates during local news beginning next week. You can ask the candidates your questions during our on-air forums, 6:30 PM Wednesday and Thursday, September 25 & 26.